The Varronian, the Various, and the Political: A Tale of a Tub, The New Atalantis and Early Eighteenth-Century Fiction[Record]

  • David Oakleaf

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  • David Oakleaf
    University of Calgary

Although Jonathan Swift and Delariver Manley would find themselves in bed together politically as propagandists for the Tory administration headed by Robert Harley, they form an odd couple. A Tale of a Tub (1704) and Secret Memoirs and Manners of Several Persons of Quality, of Both Sexes, from the New Atalantis, An Island in the Mediterranean (1709) in particular seem so ill assorted that even critics of satire seldom consider them together. Without minimizing the oddity of the project, I will suggest the value of considering these texts together formally, politically, and commercially. A Tale and New Atalantis are both Varronian (alternatively, Menippean) satires pressed into the service of partisan politics. Politically, their authors learned, both were dangerously intemperate. For his contribution to the sectarian politics that was inseparable from the politics of state, the clergyman Swift marred his chances for preferment within the Church of England—the Church by law established that he was, he thought, defending from its foes. Its members, he later grumbled, “are not always very nice in distinguishing between their Enemies and their Friends.” For her partisan satire of powerful members of the Whig ministry, the Tory Manley faced consequences even more serious. After the publication of the second volume of the New Atalantis, she was arrested on charges of seditious libel. The boundary between politics and fiction was porous: Swift and Manley, like their contemporary Daniel Defoe, faced harsh real-world reprisals for what they wrote. Finally, partly on the strength of such vigorous reader responses, I would like to associate A Tale and New Atalantis as commercial successes that (along with some contemporary satire) merit consideration with the early novel. For A Tale and New Atalantis are both fictions that sold remarkably well in the turbulent marketplace that was spawning the miscellaneous form (or cluster of forms) that we dignify as the novel. This market was highly politicized. The 1694 Triennial Act required elections to Parliament at least every three years, and sharp partisan differences meant that they were fiercely contested. The (related) lapse of the Licensing Act in 1695 eliminated prepublication censorship of printed works, including the partisan propaganda needed to sway public opinion. Ambitious writers who could catch the taste of the town—that is, write for sale what readers wanted to buy—possessed a skill that the powerful were willing to reward with preferment or, lower down the social scale, cash. Even writers who were taking advantage of this situation, as Swift was trying to do in A Tale, disparaged their rivals’ self-serving and subliterary venality: “Fourscore and eleven Pamphlets have I writ under three Reigns,” brags the Grub-Street Teller of Swift’s Tale, “and for the Service of six and thirty Factions” (A Tale, 44). Writers like Swift prospered better than smaller fry in the predatory world of commercial publication, but they swam in the same pool. “In the largest terms,” Marcus Walsh observes, “the Tale itself belongs to the genre or anti-genre we have learnt to call Menippean satire” (A Tale lv), the literary kind central to formalist readings of A Tale. Such an identification leaves open more questions than it settles, however, as Walsh’s cautious phrasing suggests. Even less enamored of generic labels, Ashley Marshall argues that we should read a full range of contemporary satire, not just a few agreed classics, registering satire’s daunting heterogeneity. “Swift as early eighteenth-century satirist,” she concludes, “belongs not to the world of the Scriblerians but to that of Defoe, Tutchin, Maynwaring, and the other religiopolitical satirists”—a group with which I will shortly associate Manley. Yet it is a …